5 Must-Haves for a Great Detective in Fiction

Peter Falk in ‘Columbo’/Image © NBC

Editor's Note:

Andrew Grant is the author of RUN, False Positive, False Friend, and False Witness. He was born in Birmingham, England. He attended the University of Sheffield, where he studied English literature and drama. He ran a small independent theater company, and subsequently worked in the telecommunications industry for fifteen years. Grant and his wife, the novelist Tasha Alexander, divide their time between Chicago and the United Kingdom.

The Detective in its formal sense is a fairly recent construct – the first professional police service wasn’t established until 1829 with Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act in London – but crime has been a part of human behavior since time immemorial. It’s in the Bible. It’s in Greek myth. And along with crime comes our fascination with those who deal with its aftermath – living with its consequences, making sense of what happened, and bringing the wrongdoers to account for their actions. It’s natural that this enduring fascination is reflected in fiction, but what is it that makes the detective – however you define him or her – engaging and memorable? I’d say there are at least five aspects.

First and foremost, a detective must be smart. For a crime to be interesting it must be complex and have no obvious explanation. Humans are hard-wired to seek the answers to questions so we need a scenario that’s intriguing enough to keep us guessing until the end of the story, and a sleuth whose deductive powers are sufficiently exceptional to solve the puzzle. Could Sir Charles Baskerville really have been killed by a diabolical hound? Thank goodness Sherlock Holmes was on hand to figure out what really happened.

For most people life is a struggle – to pay the bills, to keep on the right side of the boss, sometimes to just get through the day – so they want to see a determined, relentless streak in their fictional heroes. This can be no more than a dogged refusal to be thrown off the scent (think Columbo, and his one more thing) or something more extreme, such as Jeffery Deaver’s character Lincoln Rhyme, who continues his work despite a horrific accident that confines him to a wheelchair.

Crime is an abstract concept, but its effects are felt by real people. Readers therefore need their fictional detective to be a fully fleshed-out human, not just a machine that explains a mystery. The hero doesn’t need to be perfect, but he or she does need to be interesting enough to hold our attention until the end of the story. We need to care whether they succeed or fail. And we need to see them grow and change in a credible way. Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily is a great example of this as each case she closes gives her a greater insight into herself and her society at large.

Real life is constrained by endless webs of rules and regulations, so memorable fictional detectives offer an element of escapism by taking the reader places and showing them things that would otherwise get them fired, arrested, or killed. It’s no coincidence that so many such heroes have wild, maverick sides, from Travis McGee to Jack Reacher.

To cement their place in our memories, a good fictional detective will also have a flair for the dramatic. I always loved the way Hercule Poirot would assemble his cast of suspects and toy with each in turn before revealing his startling conclusion. In an outlying example, the same thing can be seen in Shakespeare’s Henry V when the king presents the nobles he’d caught plotting against him with death warrants in place of their commissions.

A more detailed analysis could uncover more attributes than these but would still only describe what a detective has, not what a detective is. At best, such a fictional hero goes beyond the mechanics of solving crime to deliver a much more primal need – a sense of justice. Of right prevailing over wrong. And even if that only happens on the page, it still always makes us feel better.